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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

June 18, 2013: American Swims: Weissmuller and Phelps

[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series will focus on meaningful swims in American culture and history. Add your responses and summertime thoughts for a warm weekend post, please!]
On the two Olympians whose divergent narratives reveal a great deal about their respective eras.
America has had its share of Olympic stars, but I don’t know that any have been more successful, or more famous, than Johnny Weissmuller and Michael Phelps. Weissmuller won five swimming golds, a bronze in water polo, and numerous other medals at the 1924 and 1928 Summer Olympics (along with 52 US National Championships during the decade); he then went on to an epic Hollywood career over the next twenty-five years, starring in a dozen Tarzan films and thirteen in the Jungle Jim series (which also became a short-lived TV show). Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, winning 22 total medals across the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Summer games, and his 8 golds in 2008 were also an all-time individual record; he has since started his own charitable foundation and begun to work as an advocate for swimming and health initiatives, amassing nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers in the process.
That last clause already highlights just how distinct fame and celebrity have become in the nearly 90 years between Weissmuller and Phelps’ Olympic triumphs—not only because our 21st century stars (in sports as in every other arena) are expected (if not indeed required) to interact with the public quite consistently and thoroughly, but also because the lives of those stars are just as consistently and thoroughly scrutinized by that public (through its media middlemen). As a result, Phelps’ missteps and problems—a party where he apparently smoked pot, an arrest for DUI, various romantic misadventures—have been chronicled and dissected time and again; Weissmuller, on the other hand, was married five times between 1931 and 1963 (the years during which he was at the height of his film success) but received far less public scrutiny or critique for those personal details.
The causes of this shift are obvious enough—the proliferating mass media and 24-hour news cycle, the rise of the internet and social media, changing journalistic ethics and agendas. But it’s also possible to argue that Weissmuller and Phelps illustrate an under-noticed effect of this shift in public attention. Phelps’ life and work are far from over, but it’s difficult at best to imagine him going on to a thirty-year acting career, or staying in the public eye in any capacity for that long; or, more exactly, it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to do so, given all that such celebrity requires and entails. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of yesterday’s text, famously wrote that “There are no second acts in American lives”—Weissmuller certainly proved him wrong (although Fitzgerald was, in fairness, referring principally to the possibility of a second act revival after a first act collapse); but perhaps such second acts will indeed prove far harder to achieve in our 21st century moment.
Next American swim tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on these stars or questions? Other summer links you’d highlight?

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